Why Doesn’t Everyone Go Through The Five Stages of Grief? An Interview with Dr. Paul Coleman, Part Two

Psychologist Dr. Paul Coleman talks about an alternative to the five stages and how spirituality helps people heal

Today, SevenPonds continues our two-part interview (read part one here) with Dr. Paul Coleman, a psychologist who recently wrote a book about loss called Finding Peace When Your Heart Is In Pieces: A Step-By-Step Guide to the Other Side of Grief, Loss and Pain. In part two of our interview, he talks about how spirituality helps people heal and why the five stages of grief don’t actually exist. 

Dr. Paul Coleman

Credit: Dr. Paul Coleman

Marissa: We often talk about the five stages of grief when someone experiences a loss. Is this a pattern that most people go through? 

Dr. Paul Coleman: The stages of grief aren’t really valid. It’s a guideline. It’s useful in that it might alert you to certain things. But not everyone goes through those five stages. When your life is turned upside down, there are some things that are fairly predictable. One is there’s usually a level of “I don’t wanna do this. Why is this happening?” You have no choice. The second phase is you don’t know where you’re going exactly or how you’re going to get there if you do know. That’s the wandering phase. The next phase is what I would call warrior phase, and it doesn’t mean hostility necessarily. It means battling the challenges that you’re going to face. Could be financial challenges or emotional challenges as you’re trying to put your life back together in a new way. In old stories, it would be that the hero has to slay dragons. The dragon is really ourselves. The battle is really with ourselves. You may have to battle how to get more money or how to raise kids or how to find new love or how to get meaning in life. We’re really trying to overcome our personal fears and personal weaknesses. You get to a stage where you’ve gotten to some other side. You’ve been wounded by this thing, but you’re resurrected in a way. You’ve come back with a new perspective on life. In some of the old stories, the hero travels to fight the demons and then they come back to the kingdom, and when they come back they’ve changed. They’re not the same person. Hopefully they’re wiser. And you may not come back to the kingdom in the same way. You may not come back to the same living situation. But you’re really coming back to the world and starting over again. That’s what happens. And it starts over again if you live long enough. If you live hard enough, then other losses take place. It’s a constant learning about yourself, overcoming fear, finding meaning and purpose in your life despite tragedy and loss.

Marissa: You say the stages of grief aren’t valid anymore. Why is that?

Dr. Paul Coleman: It’s not been demonstrated research-wise to be valid. To be considered a real stage, it has to be universal and everybody’s gotta go through the same steps, and that’s just not the case. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross started it by working with people who literally were dying. She was with them when she noticed that as they went through a process of becoming more and more ill, and these kinds of things started to show up. Because it was a very useful concept, psychologists ran with it. It’s so nice to tell people, “Oh, this is what you’re going to experience.” And many people who are grieving embraced it because they think, “Oh, once I’m at stage five then I’m done.” That’s nice to know. So there’s an appeal that way. Not everybody goes through it so that’s where it loses some of its luster. Some people would even argue that it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like oh, you’re going to be depressed now because that’s stage four. Maybe they’re not in denial. Maybe they’re not bargaining. Maybe they’re not angry. Maybe they’re relieved. When my mother passed away in 2007, she was 92. We were all relieved. She had very serious dementia; she didn’t know anybody for the last two years. It was an existence that was not a great existence. I believe she is in heaven with my dad, so we’re happy. Sad on one hand but happy. There was no anger; there was no denial; no bargaining, no depression. We started and ended with acceptance. The concept is useful in the broadest sense. It tells people they might experience a broad variety of emotions, some of which might actually surprise them.

illustrated representations of the five stages of grief including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance

Credit: Tanya Dawn

Marissa: For some people, it takes a long time to heal after a loss. Is it healthy to still have serious grief after more than six months? 

Dr. Paul Coleman: I don’t know where that number comes from. I’ve heard that number before. The truth is there’s a wide variability of how long it takes people to overcome loss. There really isn’t anything that we would consider normal. In one study of people whose loved ones have died suddenly in a car accident, so it was very unexpected, they found that the people who were surviving most days of the week were still recalling events that led up to the accident, and it was now seven years later. Seven years later, they were still thinking about “Oh I remember that day, and he had just left the house and said ‘I’m just going out for a newspaper and I’ll be back.’” That’s considered normal for those types of situations. If your spouse dies after 30 years, you’re gonna be devastated. It’s gonna take a lot longer than six months. If you have a child that dies, you may never completely get over that pain. There’s something we call complicated grief, and usually that has to do with emotions that are hindering the healing process. That has to do with anger or guilt. I remember one of my clients. He was with his dad in a car accident—his dad was killed. He was a boy. The problem was, he and his dad were arguing at the time. The boy wanted to buy something and the dad was refusing to let him go to the store to buy it. His last memory of his dad was arguing. That complicated his grief.

Marissa: Oh, wow. I can imagine. 

Dr. Paul Coleman: Another sign is that you’re not able to function as you normally would. That doesn’t mean you should go to work and be happy, but you should be able to go to work. You should be able to have a job, take care of the house and take care of the kids. But if you’re finding that many months later you’re still not, then there’s more going on besides the pain of loss. Then it’s a good idea to make sure you’re talking to someone because then you have emotions that you haven’t sorted through. I literally, five minutes before you called, was listening to a message from a guy whose mother died recently. He was an older man, probably 45 or 50. He said growing up he was his mother’s protector, dad was abusive. Now mom was sick in the hospital and they had to make decisions for the mother about her treatment because it was touch-and-go. Should they allow this, or should they allow that? Doctors said, “Well if you do this it might prolong her life, but she might be a vegetable.” He had to make those decisions. He made them; his mother died and he says, “I did not protect my mother. I’ve done that all my life.” That’s a complicated grief right there. It requires more than just having good friends and people to talk to.

A woman hugging a man

Credit: flickr.com user ajagendorf25

Marissa: In your book, you talk about the role of spirituality in grief. Can you explain how spirituality can help people heal? 

Dr. Paul Coleman: Some people already have a level of spirituality and some people have less. When your life gets turned upside down, you start asking the bigger questions. Not just about what am I gonna do, but you start asking the cosmic questions. Why did this happen? What does this mean? If there’s a god, why did God let this happen at this time? So you’re starting to raise bigger questions about the meaning of life and you enter into this opportunity to explore those questions. When you do that, you’re opening yourself up more to spiritual insights, if you’re willing to. And most people are, even if they are at first turned off. Some people will say, “I don’t know why God did this” and they close themselves off. But that’s usually temporary. They start to go back and say, “Let me look at this again.” And this loss, this journey, gives you an opportunity to go deeper into your beliefs or discover variations of your beliefs that you hadn’t thought about before.

Marissa: What are the phases you talk about in your book?

Dr. Paul Coleman: In the beginning phases of the journey, you’re a wanderer. I use an example from The Wizard of Oz a lot because it’s something everyone understands. Dorothy’s life is normal and all of the sudden there’s this tornado that takes her to this new place. That’s the metaphor for your life that’s now on a different path. You didn’t ask for it, but here you are, and you can’t just go back to where you were. You have to go on this journey, which is what the “yellow brick road” is, a journey. The first part of the journey is always a wandering phase. She literally had to travel the “yellow brick road,” and she doesn’t know what she’s going to experience, but we all travel the equivalent. If a spouse or child dies, your life is no longer the same; it’s drastically different. Getting up each morning and moving through life, you don’t exactly know where you’re headed anymore because your goals have changed. Your existence has perhaps changed. But you don’t know exactly where it’s headed. You don’t know what’s around the bend, and that’s supposed to represent learning to tolerate and to coexist with uncertainty. Uncertainty can be your friend. If you’re afraid of uncertainty, then you can be paralyzed. You need to open yourself up and say “OK. I accept uncertainty.” Now you open yourself up to your spiritual guidance either from talking to people or reading through prayer, or you open yourself up to your own intuition. The analogy I give is you have to be like a calm lake, where you can detect the ripple of a single leaf that’s fallen on the lake. It rarely comes at you in a big, bold way. It can, but it usually does not. If there’s rain on the lake, and the rain represents the chatter in our minds, the fear, you won’t detect the ripple of that single leaf, even if it’s there.

A calm lake surrounded by trees

Credit: Charles Knowles

Marissa: That’s an interesting way of putting it. Is there anything else that you see a lot when people talk about loss and spirituality? 

Dr. Paul Coleman: I have had what I would call mystical moments, where I just really had a strong sense of spiritual things that you couldn’t quite explain. I think this strengthened my desire when I talk about the journey that you’re on for people to tap into what I call the path of inspiration. You might have your own experiences. I have a lot of people come in to me and say, “You’re gonna think I’m crazy but…” and they’ll tell me, “I could smell my dad’s pipe tobacco last night and it was strong. It was like he was right there. What does that mean?” A lot of people have those moments. I’ve had those moments. That was another impetus to writing this book.

Marissa: Are these experiences common? 

Dr. Paul Coleman: I’ll raise it with people I know are experiencing grief because I know it’s not something they’ll bring up on their own. They often think if I’m telling a psychologist that I sense something that no one else sensed, they’re gonna think I’m crazy. I tell them, “I won’t think you’re crazy, but do you have any stories like that?” It’s so common for people to say, “Well now that you mention it…” I tell stories about that in the book, some of the more remarkable ones.

Marissa: Does keeping these stories to yourself get in the way of healing after a loss? It seems that it would. 

Dr. Paul Coleman: Right. When they think they won’t be believed or they’ll be patronized, like “Oh, that sounds lovely,” or “Oh, I’m sure your mother was with you.”

Marissa: Would you advise someone to talk about these experiences to get it off their chest, or should they wait until they find someone they trust? 

Dr. Paul Coleman: I would definitely tell someone who would take you seriously and wouldn’t think you’re off your rocker. When you open this topic to people, it’s amazing how many people tell you stories.

Marissa: Thank you for speaking with us!

Dr. Paul Coleman: Thank you!

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